By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 29 -- The U.S. military announced Tuesday that 10 American soldiers were killed in Iraq on Memorial Day, making May the deadliest month for U.S. troops in 2 1/2 years, as insurgents continued attacks on government and civilian targets.
Gunmen dressed in police uniforms staged a well-coordinated kidnapping at Iraq's Finance Ministry and abducted five Britons. Two vehicle bombings in Baghdad killed at least 44 people and injured 74. And the bodies of 32 men -- all shot and tortured, some handcuffed and blindfolded -- were found in two locations north and south of the capital on Tuesday, a senior Iraqi security official said.
U.S. officials have warned that the strategy of putting more American troops on the streets and in small combat outposts, part of a security plan launched in February, would lead to higher U.S. casualties. But Tuesday's carnage suggested that the effort had not created a safer security environment.
Also, the complex operations launched against U.S. and allied forces Monday and Tuesday demonstrated that the insurgency here also is adopting more sophisticated tactics and weapons.
Eight of the U.S. fatalities Monday occurred when a U.S. helicopter crashed in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing two soldiers; insurgents then ambushed a rapid response team that was arriving to rescue the troops, killing six other soldiers with a series of roadside bombs, said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman.
"They are an adaptive, difficult enemy with an ability to change tactics to adapt to what's happening on the ground," Garver said. Similar ambush tactics were used in a kidnapping on May 12, he said, when insurgents attacked a U.S. patrol, killing four soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter. The attackers then were able to escape with three captive U.S. soldiers, as quick reaction teams encountered multiple roadside bombs that delayed them getting to the scene. One of the abducted soldiers was later found dead. Two are still missing.
In the case of the helicopter crash, Garver said, it was unclear whether the roadside bombs were there beforehand or were put in place after the helicopter went down. He said the cause of the crash was under investigation.
Provincial police Capt. Muhannad al-Bawi said the copter was shot down near Muqdadiyah, about 50 miles northeast of the capital. A spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the downing in a telephone interview.
In recent months, Diyala has become one of Iraq's most restive provinces, as al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have expanded their operations there. About 3,000 U.S. troops were sent to Diyala as part of the recent buildup to help quell the violence.
Most of the nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops being sent to Iraq are to be stationed in high-visibility posts in and around Baghdad. U.S. officials hope this will heighten a sense of security and lower the rate of violence, although they say the buildup needs more time before its success can be judged.
President Bush cited the higher-risk approach during a news conference last week, saying, "We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months [ahead]. We can expect more American and Iraqi casualties."
"It could be a bloody -- it could be a very difficult August," he added.
"Generally speaking," Garver said, "we are operating with more troops on the ground, in more areas than before -- especially in places we haven't been before -- and that creates the potential for more contact between us and the enemy that can lead to more casualties."
While the short-term risks of having so many more troops on the streets are high, Garver said, "that's going to bring more stability" in the long run. "Being out with the Iraqi forces and earning the confidence of the people will lead to better cooperation with the population and separate them from the insurgents and make sure they're on our side."
In the other deadly incident for U.S. forces Monday, two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in south Baghdad, the military reported.
According to a tally by iCasualties.org, an independent Web site that tracks U.S. military deaths, Monday's fatalities bring to 116 the number of American service members killed so far this month, making May the third-deadliest month of the war for U.S. troops. The most lethal months were November and April 2004, with 137 and 135 American fatalities respectively, when the U.S. military launched two offensives against Sunni insurgents holding the town of Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office mobilized its crisis management task force, known as COBRA, to respond to the kidnapping of five British nationals from the Iraqi Finance Ministry shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Mareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said 19 vehicles sped into the Finance Ministry compound in north Baghdad as the well-planned kidnapping operation was launched. A second Interior Ministry official said the men in the vehicles were all dressed in national police uniforms.
Joe Gavaghan, a spokesman for GardaWorld, a Montreal-based security company, said in a telephone interview that four of the company's security guards and a client were abducted in the raid. A spokesman for the U.S. consulting firm BearingPoint told the British Press Association that the client was one of their employees. An official familiar with kidnapping said the BearingPoint employee was a British national. None of the officials would identify the captives by name.
Details of the kidnapping were scant.
According to news agencies, one of the victims -- apparently the BearingPoint employee -- was giving a lecture on electronic contracting in the Finance Ministry's computer science building when gunmen stormed in. The Associated Press reported that the group arrived in a long convoy of white sport-utility vehicles of the sort used frequently by Iraqi police in the capital.
The Reuters news agency, quoting a witness, said the gunmen entered the lecture hall, led by a man in a police major's uniform, yelling, "Where are the foreigners?" They then took the five British men and fled.
Kidnappings of Iraqis, usually for ransom and sometimes by sectarian death squads, occur by some estimates as often as 30 to 40 times a day across the nation. But the kidnapping of foreigners -- most often government contractors, but sometimes journalists and international aid workers -- has gone in waves. About 300 foreigners have been abducted since the start of the war, and of those, 54 were killed, 157 gained freedom and the fate of 89 is unknown, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.
In recent months, however, the number of foreigners kidnapped in Iraq has dropped steeply. Only six had been kidnapped this year before Tuesday's abductions.
Also Tuesday, at least 24 people were killed and 51 were injured when a minibus exploded in Tayaran Square, a crowded commercial district in central Baghdad where Shiites frequently catch commuter buses to their jobs in Sadr City, said a senior Iraqi police official who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Later, a car bomb was detonated by remote control in the mixed Sunni Arab and Shiite neighborhood of Amil, in southeast Baghdad, killing 20 and injuring 23, the police official said.
Correspondent Kevin Sullivan in London and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.